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The Most Heartbreaking Line of Dialogue Ever Written

by Charlotte Harris

The Most Heartbreaking Line of Dialogue Ever Written : How Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman Reveals the Human Tragedy of Late Capitalism 

Over the course of just six weeks in the Spring of 1948 Arthur Miller produced, in my opinion, the greatest play of the twentieth century. Centred on the Loman family of New York, Death Of A Salesman serves as the psychological post mortem of a man who dared to buy into capitalist dreams of success. Miller’s subject for this dissection comes in Willy Loman, a travelling salesman, who over a few short days realises his decades spent chasing the belief that he was destined for greatness through hard work has all come to nothing. Capitalism had sold him a dream which he spent his life chasing, only to realise in old age the futility of his struggle spurred by deception and lies, chaining him to this doomed mission. A lifetime of reaching for something more, something spectacular, only to break even in the same mediocrity with which he set out. 

The play is a modern masterpiece from start to finish, yet one line flawlessly packages the entire mood of Miller’s work into a single comment. A singular feeling of utter defeat. It reads as follows:

‘I’m getting awfully tired, Ben.’

 – Arthur Miller, Death of A Salesman, Act 1, (Cresset Press, 1949). 

The line in question is rather unassuming, and for a long time I wondered why it had stayed with me for so many years after first hearing it. I found myself repeating these five words under my breath at times of failure and disappointment. Why, exactly, do they carry so much?

Part One : Context

This line occurs while Willy is playing cards with his neighbour, Charlie. Willy is picking a fight with him, insulting his masculinity and accuses Charlie of attempting to belittle him. As you’ll notice though, the line is directed at a ‘Ben’, not a Charlie. This is because Willy is suffering from a moment of severe disorientation, and believes his deceased brother, Ben, to have entered the scene. The agony here is that Willy is half aware that he is losing his grip on reality, and his apology for his fatigue thus explains his seemingly random outburst of anger at Charlie. This is a man who is desperate to maintain his sense of energy, independence, and spirit, while he resists an ever growing sense of exhaustion. 

Furthermore, Willy’s brother Ben is revealed elsewhere in the play to have been a wildly successful adventurer who made millions by discovering diamonds. Thus, Willy’s apology to him for his tiredness serves as a symbolic apology to his personal dreams of capitalist success which he now accepts will never be achieved. Soul-crushing stuff. 

Part Two: Delivery 

Putting the intricacies of Miller’s writing aside, a thoughtful delivery of this line is paramount to its success. Miller gives actors little by the way of stage direction, but I’m firmly on the side of actors who chose to embed in this line an agonising tenderness. The line is surrounded by displays of aggression and anger from Willy, and so by delivering this line with refined sadness, the tragedy of his mental decline and weakness is brought to the forefront. 

Dustin Hoffman perfects this delivery in his performance as Willy Loman in the 1985 straight-to-TV version. The anger of the prior scene is not forgotten in Hoffman’s delivery, yet its rapid exit is made obvious, and replaced by a look of terror and confusion, harrowingly familiar to anyone who has spent time with someone suffering from dementia. Yet in Miller’s play this dementia is not brought on simply by old age, but rather by the strain put upon Willy by his lifetime’s impossible dream. The gentleness of delivery gives a glimpse into the man Willy once was: understanding, thoughtful, and self-aware: all the traits lost in his commitment for the greatness advertised by twentieth century American ideals. 

Part Three : Tense 

The final key to the brilliance of the line is in its tense. Whilst a less detail-oriented writer may have simply written ‘I’m awfully tired, Ben,’ Miller injects vastly more emotion into the sentence through the anticipatory word – ‘getting.’ Herein lies the sense of dread, the inevitability, the tragic downfall which nothing can prevent. Even if the title, Death of a Salesman, didn’t exist to spoil it for you, at this point we all know Willy isn’t making it to the end of the play’s final act. Willy’s exhaustion is terminal, and the salesman can only watch himself fade to nothing over two hours of theatre. Another once bright soul destroyed by the rat race. 

Part Four : Conclusions 

I suppose this line has been haunting me lately because Willy’s mistake is one that we all continue to make seventy years on. As my peers and I approach graduation and think about how we will live our lives as adults, we are already getting awfully tired. We thrash out with youthful energy, determined to make some mark on the world, to stand out, to achieve the success we dreamt of in childhood. And yet, we labour under the fear that we are not spectacular, or at least only as spectacular as everyone else. We go on dreaming, hoping, and striving because the alternative is all too depressing. So we go on, getting more and more tired, heading towards some inevitability we dare not consider. There is only so much room for greatness, and whether you’ll become a Ben or a Willy Loman is a truth always revealed when it’s too late. 

A version of this article originally appeared in Cardiff University’s Quench Magazine, an award-winning arts and culture mag written, designed and edited solely by students.

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